181101ind URI MBB

Fatts Russell is introduced in the starting lineup before Thursday’s exhibition game.

Jeff Dowtin, Cyril Langevine and Fatts Russell combined for 32 of the first 34 points scored by the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team in last week’s exhibition win over Pace. They also led dead-ball huddles, shared pointers on defense and made sure offensive sets were running smoothly.

The production level is different, but it’s not at all outside their abilities. If starring roles had been available last year, the trio surely would have played them well.

The leadership is more new, sudden responsibilities for players who could take a backseat in the past.

On both fronts, URI’s new cornerstones are ready and willing to take the torch. Led by new coach David Cox and surrounded by new faces, they’ll drive the Rams into their new era.

“We still have the same culture,” Dowtin said. “The upperclassmen know what’s at stake and the freshmen, we’ve taken them under our wing. They know what to do and they’re following in our footsteps. We’ve just been trying to lead them in the right direction.”

Their play can do a lot of the talking.

Dowtin was a key cog in URI’s rise the last two seasons, since taking over starting point guard duties midway through his freshman year. As the lights got brighter, he never wavered, scoring 23 points in an NCAA Tournament win over Creighton his freshman year. Last season, he averaged 9.6 points – good for third on the team – and led the Rams with 5.6 assists per game. In his career, he has dished out 268 assists against just 68 turnovers.

For Dowtin, the next step is maintaining his efficiency as opportunities increase. He’s averaged only 6.4 field goal attempts per game in his career. In a scrimmage against St. John’s to kick off this year’s preseason, he took 18 shots on his way to 22 points. He attempted 14 in the exhibition game and scored 18 points.

“Last year, I was kind of the facilitator,” Dowtin said. “Now, I’ve got to be more aggressive with my touches and look for my shot more.”

His backcourt mate Russell won’t have any trouble adjusting to extra offensive chances. The freshman dynamo was at his best seemingly whenever the Rams needed a boost last year, capturing the hearts of URI fans with a 20-point performance in the win over Providence College and making national headlines with his offensive flurry in the NCAA Tournament against Oklahoma.

More shots?

“That’s no problem,” he said with a laugh.

Former coach Dan Hurley spoke often about how excited he was to see Russell unleashed. Now it’s Cox who gets to take the reins off and watch the points roll in. He’s expecting big things from both Russell and Dowtin.

“Those are two dynamic guards,” Cox said. “They’ve got tremendous experience in big games. They’re big game players. College basketball is still a guard’s game, relatively speaking. Guards have to control tempo, initiate offense, make plays for themselves, make plays for others and I can’t think of two better guys in this conference who are going to be out there at the same time as those two.”

The paint will be manned by Langevine, another budding star. He too showed flashes of potential in an NCAA Tournament game as a freshman, tallying nine points and nine rebounds in URI’s second-round loss to Oregon. An injury hampered him last season, keeping him out of three games and limiting him for even longer. He eventually settled into a bench role and averaged 6.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.

Now fully healthy, he may be poised for the biggest breakout of all among the returning Rams. He had 23 points and 10 rebounds in the scrimmage against St. John’s and totaled 16 points and seven rebounds in the exhibition win.

“I worked on my game all summer,” Langevine said. “I’m going to have to be the anchor down low – and I’m going to have fun doing it.”

While Dowtin, Langevine and Russell will shoulder a significant scoring load, their more important job for overall success will come in the leadership department. They’ll team with elder statesman Christion Thompson – who redshirted last season – to set the course for an otherwise very young squad. Four freshmen are likely to play major roles for the Rams.

“After the exhibition game, I actually had a meeting with the four returners who played meaningful minutes,” Cox said. “I let them give me their input and I actually asked them if they would be willing to take on even more of a leadership role. I think they’ve done a pretty solid job, but just based on that exhibition game, I think they need to take a little more of a leadership role. And they appreciate the fact that I’m giving them a little more rope. A guy like Jeff, he knows what I want, he knows this culture.”

That culture became self-sustaining over the years, first set from the top down by the coaching staff, then built from the bottom up by players who knew exactly where to set the bar. Many of the culture’s chief stewards walked out the door last year – Hurley for Connecticut, the senior class moving on – but URI’s identity didn’t walk out the door with them.

Whether they’re scoring or leading, Dowtin, Langevine and Russell will make sure of that.

“This group of guys, we’re going to play with a chip on our shoulder,” Dowtin said. “We probably don’t get the respect we deserve. That just means we’ve got to go out harder and fight more.”

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